On April 15, 2013, two pressure cooker bombs exploded near the finish of the Boston Marathon. Three were killed and about 260 injured. Three days later, authorities publicly identified two brothers as suspects. Shortly thereafter the brothers killed a college policeman and wounded several other officers, one of whom died from his wounds a year later. One of the brothers was killed as the police tried to apprehend them, while the other was captured, put on trial two years later, convicted, and sentenced to death.
The bombing, the capture, the trial, and sentencing all were big news stories. After all, this was terrorism striking at an iconic American event on Patriot’s Day, which memorializes another iconic event, the day often regarded as the opening of the fight for American independence. And it was Islamic terrorism.
Books have been written and movies made about these events. This is as it should be. Lives were lost, limbs amputated, and nightmares endured. These are stories worth telling and remembering.
A few days after that Boston Marathon bombing another, almost unknown, tragedy occurred at the West Fertilizer Company storage facility in West, Texas. Emergency service personnel were responding to a fire there when a horrific explosion occurred. Fifteen died with up to 300 injured. A fifty-unit apartment building was destroyed along with as many as 300 homes. A crater 92 feet wide and 12 feet deep was created.
Two American tragedies occurring almost at the same time. We know a lot about one, but few know or remember the other where there was a greater loss of life and the destruction of the equivalent of a small town. There are reasons for the different memories. A bombing at the Boston Marathon makes us all feel vulnerable. We might not be spectators at that event, but we might attend other sports contests. We might sense that such a tragedy might happen outside a church or a concert or a rally. It might happen at a mall or a commuter terminal. It could easily happen at some place where we have been. On the other hand, few of us relate in the same way to ammonium nitrate storage, or even to deaths at a work site, even though workplace deaths average nearly 5,000 a year in this country—much higher, of course, than deaths by terrorism.
And, of course, Boston’s was Islamic terrorism, and that strikes chords that an industrial explosion does not.
There have been responses to the Boston bombing. Security has increased for events that bear any similarity to the Boston Marathon. I know of no cost estimates for the increased manpower and searches and barricades, but it has to be immense. On the other hand, response to the West tragedy seems minimal. This is especially striking because an investigative report a year later stated that the explosive material was not safely stored, and that federal, state, and local regulations regarding such substances were inadequate. The explosion was labeled “preventable.” In contrast, was the Boston Marathon bombing “preventable”?
If Islamic terrorism had leveled a small American village resulting in fifteen deaths, there would be an outraged and rapid response, but we don’t seem to bother ourselves if it is merely a corporate explosion. But then a twist. Last year law enforcement said that arson was the cause of the fire that led to the explosion. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has posted a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of those who set the fire, but so far the offer only dangles. Perhaps if the ATF had labeled the event as terrorism, there would be action.